September 24, 2008

Tribulations of a Wrigley Field Hot Dog Vendor

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Twenty , 40, 60, 80 — I crisply snapped off $20 bills from a sweaty wad onto the small ledge protruding from under the cheap plastic window separating me from the two men who controlled my economic well-being.
“Uh, that’s $180,” I said curtly.
“Exact change only,” was the response.
It felt like I was paying off a gambling debt. I quickly checked each side of me, looking for the clichéd men in jet-black, pinstripe suits and fedoras, waiting to “give me the business.”
All I saw, however, was a disheveled cross-section of life, all dressed in the same droopy navy blue khakis, thick blue-and-red shirt and cheap trucker-style Chicago Cubs hat. All I saw were the Wrigley Field vendors, a sore thumb fenced in among a sea of white-collar fans and drunken 20-somethings. And the two men suspiciously eyeing me and my money weren’t mob bosses, just union bosses.
And that’s the first thing I learned during the better part of the past five summers of my life, spent working as an aisle vendor at Wrigley Field — don’t mess around with the union guys. It’s like interacting with the Soup Nazi or the Wizard of Oz. Step up to the window, hold out your offering, loudly state your purpose and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
The $180 (or $169, paid with $20’s and singles exact change borrowed from my mother) paid off my union dues for the upcoming three months — my ticket to work. My ticket, a pink union card, looked as flamboyantly out of place coming from “the two Johns” (I think every union boss I’ve ever met was named John) as a gay man at a boy scout meeting.
Armed with my union card, I walked over and got my line number assignment form. Getting a line assignment number is like playing the lottery. You know there’s no way to increase the chance of getting a better number, but you’re damned if you’re not going to be the one to figure it out.
A good amount of the conversations I’ve had with my fellow vendors over the last few years have concerned line numbers. We swap line number stories, discuss strategy for getting a good number, and complain about pulling a bad number — banishing you to a day of vending purgatory.
“Shit man, I’m gonna get malts in the upper deck.”
Yes, the upper deck — the bastion of bad tipping, steep, peanut-covered stairs, summer camp children trying to pay with nickels and dimes and old people too full from their blue plate special at the Golden Nugget on Broadway (the kind of diner where the waitresses are chain-smoking, bouffant-haired and hollowly call you “sweetie”).
No, you don’t want to vend in the upper deck. You want to vend in the 100-level.
Wide, short aisles are interspersed frequently among the high rollers. Dress shirts unbuttoned to Fabio levels, cheap tank tops betrayed by Gucci sunglasses, Cubs’ jerseys and backwards caps — it’s like someone stuffed Miami Beach and a Big-10 frat into one giant room.
And then added alcohol.
Alcohol is the vendor’s best friend. The drunken jokes (“Is there any beer in that Pepsi?” is there any beer in that water?” “Are you hiding any beer in that hot dog container?” — you can’t underestimate their versatility) and drunken mistakes (“Wait, you’re not the beer guy. I want beer.”) are worth it for the hot dog vendor.
And that’s exactly what I get on this day. It was the best product I could have hoped for. With the sun beating down on Wrigley, only water and beer would make more money than hot dogs — and those were almost always gone before my year was called (2004, the year I became a vendor).
Nothing in the ballpark satisfies the beer munchies like a hot dog, and they were selling like hot cakes. It was a Saturday, meaning half my vending competition were — unlike me — showered, shaven and going to synagogue. More than half the vendors in the 17-25 year-old range are Jewish, not only creating a scandal when the Jumbo hot dogs turned out to not be kosher, but also a gentile monopoly for the afternoon.
The game also had a 12:05 p.m. starting time. Before the final out around 3 p.m., people are bound to need some sustenance. A veteran vendor can spot these days from a mile away. Nothing tops a vendor who spots a sale except a vendor who spots a $200 day (on hot dogs that is; I’ve heard of beer and water vendors raking in up to $800).
Vending this fast is like an out-of-body experience. Your brain checks out, sits back and watches as you transform into “The Vendor.”
I may not be able to remember the multiplication tables, but “The Vendor” can recite the cost of one, two, three, four or five hot dogs.
I may not be able to make an original joke, but “The Vendor” can unconsciously spout off three or four puns and stories that never fail.
“Ketchup?” a drunken man who’s not even buying a hot dog will inevitably yell. “You don’t put ketchup on a hot dog in Chicago?”
“I’ve seen fights break out over people asking for ketchup on their hot dogs,” The Vendor counters to the actual purchaser — it’s a guaranteed laugh.
I wouldn’t trust myself to babysit the most well-behaved kid, but “The Vendor” can charm the pants off of parents who have kids with them.
“Is this a first Cubs game?” The Vendor will ask. “You gonna start them early for all the heartbreak?”
I refuse to raise my hand in a class of more than 20 people, but The Vendor’s call can make everyone in a section turn their heads.
“Hot dogs here. Heeeey, who’s hungry? Who’s ready? Hot dogs!” The Vendor might even throw in a little Chicago accent at the end for some street cred, because The Vendor can get away with that.
When I’m in “vending mode,” I’m on top of the world. I’m making money. I’m kicking the ass of all the newbies trying to shill Super Ropes and melted lemon Icees. I’m laughing with people. I’m watching baseball.
But vending is a job as bipolar as Carrie Fisher. At this particular game, I raced through three loads and had already made $130 by the fourth inning. Then it stopped. It was like my 15 minutes of fame were over. I went from everyone’s friend to that tall guy that sits right in front of you in an empty movie theater.
“Down in front.”
“When do beer sales end? Can you send over the Bud guy?” The Vendor has no response to this.
It hurts. Your calves hurt from climbing stairs, your thigh hurts from the burn left by the hot dog container that’s hot enough to brand cattle, but most importantly, your ego is crushed. No one wants you.
Vending is the most individualistic job, even though you’ve been stripped of any identity for three hours and are referred to exclusively as “Hot Dog Guy.” You’re paid on pure commission, so performance is a direct correlation of how well you sell your product. Even that bandana and military-boot clad vendor who was so nice to you earlier is now gruffly mumbling at you to get out of the way so he can push another double load of Bud Light. Being ordered around by a guy in a rainbow bandana and S & M boots is a humbling feeling.
“How’d you do?”
Inevitably, I always get this question while checking out in the eighth inning. It’s said with a smile backed by cocky bravado. You never ask unless you did well.
This Saturday is no different. But I could stand up straight and respond on this day. I pushed 4 1/2 loads, good for $90 in commission and about $110 in tips. For at least that day, I don’t have to make sure to ask first so I can just respond “Yeah, me too.” Hell, I might have even outsold some people.
“Pulled in about $200,” I said causally.
“Yeah, me too.”